NEW ORLEANS — At this point in the NCAA Tournament, there is no such thing as a frustrating win, so it's better to say top two seeds North Carolina and LSU had to work a little harder than expected in Saturday's third-round wins to advance to meet in Monday's region final.
No. 1 seed UNC had to overcome an 18-point deficit to rally past fourth-seeded Louisville 78-74, but No. 2 LSU also struggled early in its 67-52 win against Oklahoma State, the third seed.
At least All-America center Sylvia Fowles did. She didn't score until 2:09 remained in the first half, and one reporter asked her if he'd read her lips as saying "Finally!" when her first points were scored.
"You were incorrect," Fowles deadpanned. "I won't repeat what I said. I just kept telling myself to stick in there and get it done on the defensive end."
LSU (30-5) led the nation in scoring defense and showed it against the Cowboys, who hit just five of their first 46 shots — 11 percent shooting. Fowles' first points were part of a 15-0 run that put the Tigers ahead 33-16; despite Andrea Riley's 26 points, Oklahoma State (27-8) would get no closer than nine points.
Fowles had 12 points — five below her average — but the Tigers got 18 and 13 points from guards Erica White and RaShonta LeBlanc, both doubling their scoring averages.
"I thought it was a good sign that we struggled with (Fowles) and found a way to win," LSU coach Van Chancellor said. "She means so much to us … and she didn't have anything but a double double with 12 points, 11 rebounds and five blocks. Not bad."
UNC (32-2) hadn't trailed by more than 13 all season, but Louisville, sparked by 16 early points from star Angel McCoughtry, jumped to a 37-19 lead with 6:30 left in the first half. Louisville (26-9) had hoped to outpace the No. 1 scoring offense in college basketball.
"I kept telling myself it can be done: You can be down 17 or 19 and come back," said LaToya Pringle, who scored a team-high 27. "All we needed to do was chip away at the lead, little by little."
The Tar Heels cut that lead in half to nine by halftime, with Pringle scoring eight of UNC's last 15 before the half. UNC had tied the score with 13 minutes remaining, and took its first lead of the second half with 8:42 left on back-to-back baskets by Jessica Breland.
Even as UNC pulled out to a 10-point lead with 2:30 to play, Louisville kept fighting, pulling within two with 28 seconds left on a 3-pointer by Candyce Bingham, who finished with 17 points and 20 rebounds. Pringle hit two free throws to seal the win, a fitting end to a game in which UNC took 44 free throws and Louisville only 10.
"I was so nervous. That's one of the most pressure situations I've ever been in," Pringle said. "I just said to myself, 'Okay, at least make one,' … so I knocked down two and I just thanked God and got back on defense."
"For us to go to the line (10 times) and Carolina's 25-of-44, there's not much I have to say," said Louisville coach Jeff Walz, who got 35 points and 13 rebounds from McCoughtry on 14-of-31 shooting. "If we're going to beat a Carolina team, you've got to find a way to get to the free-throw line."
Louisville outrebounded UNC 56-44, but scored only 15 second-chance points off 27 offensive boards. The Cardinals went 13 minutes in the second half getting all but two points from McCoughtry.
The UNC-Louisville game drew barely 1,500 fans at the 18,500-seat New Orleans Arena, with the schools' men's teams playing Saturday night in Charlotte, N.C., in a region final. LSU's game drew an announced 4,181, nearly all in purple, an advantage the Tigers will have again Monday.
LSU has been to the past four Final Fours, with UNC reaching the past two; one of those streaks will end Monday night.
Information from Times wires was used in this report.